Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer
American eating is in the midst of a backlash: foodies and farmies are more eager than ever to point out that fast food has robbed eaters of both health and happiness, while homegrown produce paves the path to holistic satisfaction. Enter Novella Carpenter's magnum opus Farm City, the story of her move to an Oakland, Calif., neighborhood plagued by gang violence and her decision, despite the circumstances, to dive headfirst into urban farming.
Carpenter recounts her memories of raising plants and animals in what starts out as an abandoned lot behind her apartment, splitting the book into three sections that chart her movement through the increasingly serious levels of urban farming: raising chickens, raising rabbits, and, finally, raising pigs for meat.
Carpenter's anecdotes are sharp and often hysterically poignant. Throughout, her descriptions of typically rural problems and their atypical urban quick-fix solutions are delivered in a kind of miraculous deadpan. Carpenter writes about absurdities: her pigs' escape out onto the city streets, her rabbits' struggles to understand the mating process, the theft of her much-coddled and cosseted prize watermelon.
In examining the muddled space her little farm inhabits amid Oakland's junkyards, Carpenter toes a fine line between funny and unfortunate. At times, this line is what makes her book truly touching: Her tales of barnyard tragedy inspire laughter and melancholy in equal parts.
Farm City is a quick read and a light thought-provoker, but it does have its problems. It is certainly edgy, whacky, fun, and out-of-the-ordinary--a hip spin on a hot topic. Carpenter's struggles to integrate the world in which she actually lives, with its late-night gunshots and trash heaps on every corner, with the world in which she wants to live, where bacon comes fresh from the hog every autumn, are compelling in part because a satisfactory conclusion feels impossible.
And while she might be able to dodge the urban bullets of uncaring landlords and mangy city predators--and might even appear to overcome or come to peace with them--you know they can't be held at bay forever. And while that's what keeps your interest peaked, it's also what keeps the book's built-in moral from hitting all the way home.
Maybe that is why Carpenter's memoir is simultaneously a little heartwarming and unfortunately precious. Her optimism seems limitless, but ultimately she can't convince you that what she's created will last. Her chickens will get eaten by the pound dogs again, her bee colony will keep collapsing. Her sustainable future feels unsustainable to the average schmuck, which makes all her farmyard philosophizing bittersweet.